William DeWitt Snodgrass: Poet whose highly personal works spawned the genre of confessional poetry

W.D. Snodgrass was a modern-day troubadour, with a lyric voice deeply influenced by his love of music. Of the generation that followed the major American figures of Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman and Robert Lowell, he enjoyed a prodigious early success, winning the Pulitzer prize for his first book of poems, Heart's Needle (1959).

But through a series of misfortunes, some circumstantial, some the result of bad artistic choices, Snodgrass managed to lose much of his audience in the course of his career. He never lost his gift, however, and his best work is almost certain to endure.

Snodgrass was, albeit inadvertently, the father of the confessional poetry that for a time dominated American verse. As a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, his teacher Robert Lowell was initially repelled by the soul-searching intimacy of Snodgrass's poems, especially those about the break-up of his first marriage (there were four in all). "You can't write this kind of tear-jerking stuff," Lowell declared; but within two years he had turned volte face, writing that Snodgrass "was better than anyone except Larkin".

The free-flowing introspection of Lowell's Life Studies was undoubtedly influenced by the personal preoccupations of Snodgrass's early work (and arguably, through Lowell, the influence extended to Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman) but Snodgrass's early poems were formalist in technique, with traditional metres and often conventional rhyme; he only began to write some of his poems in freer verse forms in the 1960s.

Snodgrass is too good a poet to be just another footnote in American literary history. The voice of Heart's Needle is quite unique, its anguish over the separation from his daughter caused by his divorce kept barely in check by prosodic control:



Well, once again this April, we've

come around to the bears;



Punished and cared for, behind bars,

the coons on bread and water

stretch thin black fingers after ours.

And you are still my daughter.



The very best poems of the book, in fact, are not in the heart-rending title sequence. "April Inventory", for example, reflects Snodgrass's almost hopeless inability to strive for conventional success. He was qualified, really, only for a life teaching students of "creative writing", yet his lack of a doctorate, and an unwillingness to take seriously the po-faced pretensions of American academe meant that – before the success of Heart's Needle in particular – he struggled to hang on to any job for very long. Fired from Cornell in 1958, he later explained in an interview that he'd been told that: " 'There's a general feeling that you don't fit in.' And I must say I shared that feeling." As "April Inventory" tellingly begins:



The green catalpa tree has turned

All white; the cherry blooms once more.

In one whole year I haven't learned

A blessed thing they pay you for.

The blossoms snow down in my hair;

The trees and I will soon be bare.



A ropey love life also didn't help his prospects, since the breakdown of three marriages in succession made for continuous emotional upheaval. We sense personal experience in the adulterous lovers of "Leaving the Motel", who leave in their furtive rented room's vase



An aspirin to preserve

Our lilacs, the wayside flowers

We've gathered and must leave to serve

A few more hours;



That's all. We can't tell when

We'll come back, can't press claims;

We would no doubt have other rooms

then,

Or other names



Snodgrass was born in Pennsylvania, the son of an accountant, and grew up in a Presbyterian household of the sort, he later joked, that hates sex "because it could lead to dancing." Family life was claustrophobically close, and conflicted, and this perhaps accounts for Snodgrass's lifelong psychological frailty and for his willingness to describe his own inner torment in an age when this simply wasn't done. As a boy, he was devoted to his mother, but she was domineering, a compulsive hoarder and neurotic; his father escaped her tyranny by having affairs. Snodgrass later blamed his mother for the early death of one of his sisters from an asthma attack, and his affection turned to animus as a grown man – in his 1970 book Remains, published under the obvious pseudonym S. S. Gardons, he wrote of his mother, "If evil did not exist, she would create it."

He was drawn early to music, and as a boy took violin lessons for over 10 years, saying later with a great belly laugh, "I was terrible ... How any of the neighbours stood it I don't know." Equally bad at the piano, he also played the timpani, and took conducting lessons, though in a post-war America with relatively few professional orchestras he soon realised that he would never make a living this way.

After starting at Geneva College in his Pennsylvania hometown, Snodgrass enlisted in the Navy at the end of the Second World War, and spent more than 18 months as a clerk and guard on Saipan in the Pacific. When he returned he transferred to the University of Iowa, where Paul Engle had established the Writer's Workshop, though initially Snodgrass went there to study playwriting.

His early poems were written very much in the styles of William Empson and the early Lowell, who was himself yet to be influenced by Snodgrass. Music was instrumental in shifting his poetry on to a more personal plain, in particular Mahler's "Songs on the Death of Children", and the singing of the Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, which made Snodgrass want to write poems with the same clarity and unselfconscious passion.

The Pulitzer prize brought Snodgrass temporary fame, more invitations to read, and longer teaching stints. He followed the book not only with his pseudonymous family poems, but with After Experience (1968). Its strong lyrics, still metrically formal, reinforced his reputation, but there were also poems about paintings (including a much-anthologised poem about Monet's "Les Nymphéas"), as well as many translations – an interest of Snodgrass's throughout his career.

Over the years Snodgrass had a peripatetic teaching career – including long stints at Wayne State, Syracuse, and the University of Delaware – while increasingly pursuing an intense but undoubtedly rarefied interest in medieval songs, publishing several pamphlets of translations with private presses, including Six Troubadour Songs and Six Minnesinger Songs. His passion for song even extended to singing lessons.

It was known that he was at work on a long cycle of poems, but it was not until 1977 that The Führer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress appeared – incomplete, but published because, in Snodgrass's words, "I had gone for a good many years without bringing out any kind of book."

A series of dramatic monologues (with the characters of Hitler, Eva Braun, Goebbels, and Himmler among others) set in the last days of the Third Reich, The Führer Bunker offended many readers, who found the humanising of inhuman figures unpalatable, even unacceptable. It seemed a perverse choice of topic for so many years' work, and in contrast to the vivid immediacy of his early poems, the cycle suffered from the inevitable staginess of monologues spoken by some of history's ghastliest real figures. Stubbornly, Snodgrass persevered with the cycle, even adding more Albert Speer monologues in later years when new information about Speer came to light. It was an obsession with a historical reality that even those sharing his fascination preferred to read about in non-fiction.

But there was something admirable in the insistent way in which Snodgrass remained his own man and his own writer. He wrote other new poems, and enjoyed some late revived success with the publication of his Selected Poems: 1957-1987 (1987) and Not for Specialists: New and Selected Poems (2006). A successor to the fabled generation of post-war poets and taught by its dominant trio of Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Berryman, Snodgrass became a grand old man himself, but without the wider reputation of his predecessors. The lyric gift never disappeared, however, even as he seemed to say goodbye to it, as in his late poem "Packing up the Lute":



Go lie with lovenotes and snapshots. You

Were just too fine a vice to last.

Condemned to virtue, we thumb through

The evidence of our misspent past.



William DeWitt Snodgrass, poet and translator: born Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania 5 January 1926; married four times (one son, one daughter); died Erieville, New York 13 January 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
News
Lois Pryce... Life Without a Postcode. Lois lives on a boat with her husband.. Registering to vote in the election has prooved to be very difficult without a fixed residential post code. (David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing